What is “the truth”: getting a grasp on it.

Two things got me thinking. One was a conversation I had with an economist: one who does microeconomics. He told me that “we probably know less about macroeconomics than what it says in the freshman textbooks”; the idea is that there are too many variables, confounding factors and non-robustness to initial conditions.

Of course Paul Krugman is a smart, accomplished man who to me, appears to get lots of things right. But am I falling into the trap of listening to him because what he says makes sense to me and I am unwilling to entertain thoughts from other smart people who might disagree?

That is a tough call which is made worse by the fact that I am not an economist.

Then there is this, which I saw on Facebook:


Ok. But what in the heck is truth?
Religious fundamentalists (Muslims and Christians mostly) go on and on about “the truth” and how defying that is so-so-so bad. Defying the “truth” mostly means “disagreeing with them” or “not accepting their “divine revelations”.
Conspiracy Theorists: to them, we are all “sheepole” who are “in denial” of the truth that: 9/11 was an inside job, President Obama is a Kenyan Muslim who hates America, FEMA camps are being set up to house those who oppose the government, etc.
Crackpots and woos: if you deny divine creationism, you’ve been fooled by Satan. If you dismiss much of the GMO hysteria, you are being fooled by….{insert bogeyman here}. Dismiss homeopathy: obviously you are a tool of “big pharma”.

ALL of these see themselves as principled truth tellers who are just “telling it like it is”. Yet, few of these “activists” know what they are talking about.

But, given that most of us are non-experts at the vast majority of things (frankly, very few are experts at ANYTHING) what are we doing to do?

It might sound easy, but it isn’t always easy. Here is what we are up against:

1. Even great minds sometimes go crackpot.

2. Sometimes mistaken claims get a great deal of publicity, only to be shown to be false.

3. Sometimes, people pull elaborate hoaxes.

4. Sometimes, scientists cheat and commit fraud.

5. Sometimes, scientists do advocacy (especially for big money) instead of doing neutral science.

6. Sometimes journalists rush things into print before they have been verified.

7. Sometimes scientists oversell their results and are picked up by journalists.

8. Sometimes advocates misunderstand published work and draw wrong conclusions from it.

9. And, of course, there is the dreaded “false positive” that is honestly obtained.

So how does a non-expert maintain the proper balance between skepticism and acceptance? This is what I attempt to do:
a. How established is this result? Example: evolution might be controversial in the public, but it isn’t in science departments. For evolution to be wrong, biology, along with anthropology, organic chemistry, geology, and paleontology have to be wrong.
b. Who is saying this: is it a vast community of scientist or a solo voice working for an industry that has an interest in the “fact” being true? (e. g. tobacco scientists)
c. What is the real issue? Do the “advocates” and “activists” even have a clue as to what they are talking about? Is there any peer review?
d. Source articles: if they are written by a “journalist”, are there scientists saying “this is more or less correct”?
e. If this is from a study, what is “n”? What is the “p-value”? What sort of distribution does the data come from? How was it gathered?

None of this is perfect, but it beats listening to non-credentialed, loud blowhards going on about what “makes sense to them” or about “common sense”.

(missing link)


March 9, 2013 - Posted by | science, social/political |

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: